For weeks the letters have streamed in from listeners unhappy about the amount of time NPR is devoting to all things Donald Trump.
But to my mind, NPR reached its own "peak Trump" last Friday when — no fooling — Morning Edition featured three political stories: one about Trump's approach to foreign policy, one about Trump calling in to a radio show and one about how Ted Cruz is gaining on Trump in the battle for Wisconsin primary voters. Another story about Trump's standing with women ran later in the day on All Things Considered. Valid stories? Absolutely. But do I understand and, at times, even empathize with the listeners and their frustration that Trump is driving coverage? Yes.
Here's an excerpt from one thoughtful letter from Brian Cotter, who says he and his wife, Joanne Cotter-Goodwin, are "longtime listeners to and supporters of National Public Radio, especially our local station, WAMU":
"Recently we have noticed, based on the number of new articles about him, and the number of times his name is mentioned, that it appears the majority of NPR's presidential campaign coverage is about Donald Trump, at the expense of the other viable candidates. For example, today's NPR main webpage has six stories directly or indirectly about Trump, and [on] the NPR Politics webpage, the majority of stories were about Trump. This morning's Weekend Edition had two stories on him, and none on the other candidates' activities or controversies.
Listening to NPR, one might get the impression that Donald Trump is the only person running for president. This over-coverage of one candidate is both tiresome and completely unbalanced. Although he is entertaining and makes for good stories, this does not warrant omitting coverage of the other four candidates still working to become president. They all deserve the attention of the news media."
Kevin Lappe of Glen Allen, Va., had a similar concern: "I write to you to express my weariness with the amount of coverage Mr. Donald Trump has received on Morning Edition the past few months. While I have not quantified the time allotted to covering this public figure, I can attest to the level of fatigue coverage of Mr. Trump brings upon NPR listeners. Mr. Trump's impending Republican nomination, or future implosion, depending on your view of the coming party conventions, while of great importance to the future of the country, should not be the lead story of every presidential recap segment."
Other letter-writers are not so diplomatic. Many argue that NPR could better use the time. Margaret Stephens of Philadelphia wrote that she turned off a recent Friday All Things Considered political commentary when it focused on Trump. "This, in a week of momentous domestic and world events — Supreme Court vacancy, Brussels, Cuba and Argentina, to name a few. Your listeners deserve better. How about providing deeper insights into more substantive issues? How about probing the positions and policies of other candidates you cover so little, principally Kasich and Sanders? I expect something better on public airwaves than the pablum and sensationalism offered on advertising-driven networks."
I don't completely agree with Stephens about the nature of NPR's Trump coverage; as I have written before, I believe there is a substantive difference between many of NPR's reports — such as this fascinating round table with young Republicans — and the frequent telephone interviews with the candidate on some of the commercial networks.
And NPR has given substantial attention to both Democratic candidates. But to John Kasich, running third in the Republican race? Not so much, in recent weeks. You have to go back to March 21 to find more than a fleeting on-air reference to any of his policy positions, and it was two lines summing up his speech (and that of Cruz) to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: "And again, each of them hit the main points that there will be no daylight between the United States and Israel when they are president. They will not allow countries to drive a wedge between them."
Other passionate letters have questioned the tenor of the Trump coverage. Susan Anderson-Newham of Tacoma, Wash., wrote: "Your current (absurd) complete OVER-coverage of Donald Trump has pushed me from irritated to furious. He's a buffoon! He could very well destroy my country and yet you blather on over his speeches and give his racist, hate-filled supporters acres of air time." I have also heard from Trump supporters who question the fairness of the coverage.
I sent Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director, a solid sampling of the listener letters. Here's his response, in full:
"I've been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1976. Each presented its own set of challenges. None have been more challenging than 2016. Our listeners have strong, and at least sometimes opposing points of view. It's that kind of year.
There have been loud demands for journalists to step out of their role as reporters and take up a role passing judgment on the candidates, or at least one of them. At NPR we believe that is the job of voters. Our job is to give voters all the information we can to make those judgments. The more strident the campaign becomes, the more important it is for us to remain a voice of reason.
While some listeners want our coverage of Donald Trump to be more judgmental, others simply want us to cover him less or not at all. On any given day you can second-guess the producers who have the hard job of deciding who gets how much time. But overall, the coverage of Trump appropriately represents his major impact on the race and the country. What would the alternative have been? Ignore a contender for one of the major party nominations when he says that Muslims should be barred from entering the country? Not report it when he questions whether his party's 2008 nominee is a war hero? Should we let his claim that Muslims were dancing in New Jersey on 9/11 stand unchallenged (we fact-checked it and found it false)?
NPR and other media organizations have offered a pretty clear portrait of Trump. As a result, the broad public appears to have formed clear and strongly held views about him. That is actually the system working.
In addition, we and other organizations have covered the other candidates, from both parties, extensively. There's a good case to be made that the voters have heard more from and about this year's candidates than they heard about the many primary candidates in past years.
We have been covering this campaign for more than a year now. We have looked deeply at issues, fact-checked the statements of all the major candidates, interviewed those who would be interviewed and generally sought to capture the full range of what was happening in the campaign."
In a follow-up email, he said of last week's three-Trump morning: "There are always days when a journalist might do it another way if given the chance to do it over. But I really don't want to second-guess any one day's decisions. You really have to look at the coverage overall. That afternoon ATC lead with the Democratic race. The day before, Morning Edition devoted that prime spot to a piece on the impact Sanders has had on Clinton policy."
I take Oreskes' points but I do believe NPR listeners would benefit if NPR stepped away from the horse race more, and did not let Trump set the agenda so often. Meanwhile, I had a question of my own for Oreskes: Has NPR requested an interview with Trump, and is it continuing to pursue one? He replied: "We have repeatedly invited Donald Trump to sit down with us on NPR. So far, he has declined. Mr. Kasich and Mr. Cruz have both appeared. I recently reached out to Mr. Trump's campaign to reinforce our desire to conduct a serious interview with him. The campaign says it is considering our request."
My office has also received complaints from dozens of NPR.org readers, many spurred on by a report from FAIR.org, about a "Fact Check" by NPR's Peter Overby. That piece stemmed from a spat between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over donations from the fossil fuel industry.
The readers were unhappy that Overby checked out direct donations to each campaign from oil and gas company employees, but did not include those from "lobbyists with fossil-fuel clients," or money donated to Clinton's superPAC (Sanders does not have a superPAC). Candidates are prohibited by law from coordinating with superPACs that support them, so one could make an argument for that decision. But given that the dispute between the candidates was directly about donations bundled by lobbyists, it seems an odd decision not to at least acknowledge those sums, as other news organizations did in conducting their own fact checking. (That said, The Washington Post, in the most thorough of the other fact checks I found on this story, ruled that the amount of Clinton donations that the Sanders campaign attributed to fossil fuel lobbyists was "misleading.")
In any case, Overby is right; the sums involved, even when the murky lobbyist-coordinated amounts are included, are a very small part of Clinton's overall fundraising. But I'd be much more interested if NPR also delved deeply into the industries supporting all the candidates, rather than letting sniping from the campaign trail set the agenda.
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